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Lynwood High Staffers Push for Removal of Laboratory Chemicals

January 17, 1988|ROXANA KOPETMAN and LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writers

The storage room in the Lynwood Senior High School chemistry lab is kept locked. And for a good reason, school officials say.

The small room is crammed with an array of old chemicals that a county health official this week described as including potentially explosive substances. School officials say some of the chemicals, which have accumulated for more than 30 years, have oozed from their containers and are eating through the wooden shelves.

The school's principal and the chemistry teacher want the stuff out.

'Children Deserve Better'

"I think my children deserve better treatment than this. I don't want to poison them, and I don't want to expose them to a dangerous environment," said Nawal El-Bogdadi, the school's chemistry teacher.

El-Bogdadi and Lynwood Principal Larry C. Tripplett accuse the Lynwood Unified School District of dragging its feet in ridding the lab of the chemicals.

School district administrators rebuff the charges and say they have already removed the only chemicals that were dangerous. They also say that Lynwood High officials, who have been at odds with the district for some time, are using the chemistry lab in a "political" ploy to force administrators to make improvements throughout the school.

During Tuesday's school board meeting, several teachers and parents, accompanied by Tripplett, presented a list of concerns that included the hazardous materials.

The group also said it was concerned about the lack of heat in some buildings, including the gym and auditorium, the need for more chairs in classrooms and a cafeteria for the high school, which has 2,700 students.

Board President Willard Hawn Reed said it was his understanding that a private chemical disposal company had been called to remove any materials that school officials are concerned about.

"I don't know why this flurry. Something is being done to take care of the items they are talking about," Reed said.

"If there are hazardous materials in the lab, why has it not been shut down (by the principal)?" asked Jewel Lee, assistant superintendent. "Why has this not come to our attention sooner?"

Lee said it was his impression that all hazardous materials had been removed last summer from both Lynwood High and the district's only junior high school.

Dangers Seen

But some of the chemicals that school officials say remain in the lab are dangerous, according to a hazardous materials specialist with the Los Angeles County Health Department. When read a partial list of the chemicals in the storage room, chemist Linda Macalintal said several have not been used in high school chemistry labs for at least 10 years. Some chemicals, such as nitrobenzene and carbon tetrachloride, are explosive and "shouldn't be in a (school) chemistry lab," she said. Other substances, such as sodium, are dangerous only when mixed with other chemicals, and radium should be checked for its potential radioactivity, she said.

El-Bogdadi said sodium and potassium, which are explosive when mixed with water, are stored inside a refrigerator that is leaking water.

Whether a chemical poses a danger could also depend on the condition of its container, Macalintal and other safety officials said.

"The most important thing is that the containers are in good shape" and not leaking, said Ann Kaneshiro, a supervisor with the county hazardous materials division.

The chemical's age also is crucial, Macalintal said. "Any chemical that is retrograde," she said, "has no business in a chemistry lab." Retrograde chemicals are those which have exceeded their shelf life. If a container is rusting or crystallizing or leaking, "it has been there too long," she said.

The 5-by-8 foot storage room at Lynwood has containers that are rusting, crystallizing and leaking, according to El-Bogdadi and Tripplett.

Tripplett, who became principal in April, 1985, said a former chemistry teacher had accumulated the materials for about three decades. And "during the early days, chemistry teachers collected everything. Now there are constraints," he said.

When El-Bogdadi became the new chemistry teacher last September, she unlocked the cobweb-covered room to find a host of chemicals. "I cried when I opened the room," she said.

According to the two school officials, they have been trying to get rid of the chemicals ever since.

But district administrators see things differently.

William Burr, risk manager for the school district, said that several months ago he ordered that all schools be checked for hazardous materials. During that process, Lynwood High officials reported dangerous chemicals in the lab storage room. The district then hired a private company to remove all chemicals that posed a danger, he said.

Burr said he does not believe that what remains is hazardous.

But because El-Bogdadi still had concerns, she says she sent Burr a list of unwanted chemicals last November. Tripplett said when no action came as a result, he sent another copy of the list to the district Tuesday, the day of the school board meeting.

Burr said he received the list the following day and expected to have the unwanted materials promptly removed from the school.

Burr said he has contacted a company that is scheduled to go to the high school and inspect the materials sometime next week. At that time, the firm will give a cost estimate for removal.

"There is probably a breakdown in communications," said board member Thelma Williams.

Lee said the controversy has "gotten out of hand" and stems not from any danger in the chemistry lab but from personal conflicts between the Lynwood High officials and district administrators.

"It's getting very political," Lee said.

If there was anything dangerous at Lynwood High School, Lee added, he would be "the first one" to remove it. "I wouldn't wait for board action."

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